Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ecologies of consciousness

ESSENTIALLY, personal consciousness is:

• Finite: it has a beginning in infancy and an ending at death. We experience a particular consciousness in this particular life. If anything of “us” continues into some other reality, it’s inaccessible to us here and now and doesn’t play back in discernible ways into our present: it’s irrelevant.

• Bounded: it has horizons: in a lifetime we can see only so far, we can do only so much, we can pursue only one path, broader or narrower though it be.

• Accretive: consciousness gathers as it goes — memories (experiences, cultural/social and imposed/indoctrinated assimilations) accumulate and add shape to the whole of our personal consciousness — we are filled out by what we have been.

• Selective: by ways of attention, forgetting and “conforming”, we modulate and direct our inputs and out retentions around a growing sense of “self”, creating a narrative of our own differentiated personhood.

• Multichannel: the various things that go into shaping personal consciousness arrive as a complicated flow of information, emotion, sensation, affirmation, negation and consolidation — we tend to draw different modalities of experience together, modulating and attenuating them in personally particular ways.

Integrative: consciousness may form branches but it is reluctant to divide, preferring to suppress or discard inputs that conflict with what it has already incorporated into its overall sense of unity. The conscious impulse towards coherence and congruence is often thought of the search for personal “meaning”. It usually includes an expectation that the universe will conform to our hopes and way of thinking.

• Evaluative: in its shuffling of inputs to establish coherence, the impulse of personal consciousness is to seek affirmation rather than information, and discard paradox and contradiction. It hungers after certainties. This inclines us to become better “believers” than “seekers”.

So personal consciousness, in becoming unique, increasingly becomes its own context.

The more effectively it achieves this, the more susceptible it becomes, not only to disappointment, but also to whatever doctrines, creeds and conventions seem resonant and offer a more vivid illusion of personal identity.

As social creatures, we seem to experience most personal wellbeing when there are various bonds of affirming intimacy and coherence within groups of consciousnesses: social, economic and physical. We feel good when we have or imagine ourselves having a "role", a purpose and a "mission". From such searches for wellbeing are forged the bases and bastions of empire, revolution, organized religion, “strong” government, mass movements, amateur dramatic societies, professional organizations and biker gangs… and their collapse. It just the old problem that’s inherent to setting goals: we achieve them, then realize that they were inherently unsatisfying or that we have acquired more sophisticated goals and, unwilling to overhaul the personal consciousnesses, we become suckers for new goals and strive even harder …or we self-destruct.

TWO things seem to offer important escapes from the trap of hardening shells of personal consciousness.

The first is to look at the ecology of consciousness.

How do I put a few cracks in my need for affirmation? How do I perturb my compulsion to burrow deeper in “same old”? How do I curb my appetite for reassurance?

Under-employment helps. The attendant collapse of income is liberating, once the anxieties are seen to be silly (which they are).

Then I found the option of shifting my passion for the ocean to listening closely to the nearby river — and a discovery that it sounds different every day… I listen until I hear its song, or let its song take form in my imagination. The song has a meaning… it comes from the dynamics of its flow and that ties it into all sorts of widening contexts… the weather, the climate, the seasons, the geology and the geo-history. So I began finding out about watershed hydrology and what's happening under the river, under my feet. And then I promoted my interest in pollinators into a passion, looking for the things they might tell me. The interesting thing to me has been that these things have proven a lot more lucid and sensible than your average philosopher, author, scientist or theologian. The river and the bees, flies and wasps all make sense… moral, intellectual and emotional sense. And, all of a sudden, I find I’m writing poetry again, waking at 2 a.m. full of excitement to scribble.

And there are always new ways of giving and receiving hospitality… and new friends who are affirming in new ways. As strangers become friends, new worlds start appearing.

These are all essentially changes in the ecological setting of my consciousness. And, like any ecological change, they oblige changes and adaptation in the creatures inhabiting the niches under their sway.

A human consciousness can be versatile, provided its ecological setting is not too hostile. Hostility encourages a consciousness to cling harder to existing "certainties": that's how wars and persecutions start. The best, most conflict-free way to tend a personal consciousness is probably to push it towards healthier ecologies. In purely physical ways, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did this all the time. The impulse to journey is rooted in out being.

In a busy, urban, consumerist lifestyle, where the wounds are swathed in muffling bandages of entertainment, drugs and distraction, the surroundings are about as healthy as the Athabasca River, downstream from the tarsands exploitation. Noise, junk architecture, jarring ugliness, endless needfulness, boredom, recreational shopping, ego-jousting, commuting, long working hours, endless rivalry and pressures to “succeed”… the human being did not evolve to be trapped like this, and the human consciousness is not equipped to flourish in raucous over-stimulation.

It's easier to move to fresher fields — new ecosystems — than to adapt one’s being to torturing psychic surroundings.

The second thing?

Curiosity! Curiosity is like aspirin… it’s a fairly safe, all-round remedy for most that ails the consciousness. The World is endlessly interesting, pretty much wherever you look. More passes us by unnoticed in an instant than we can explore in a decade: rekindling jaded curiosity, re-examining things taken for granted, wondering in new ways, with new questions and widened senses can feel like an explosion of new life… in fact, that’s pretty much what it is. Curiosity lights a fuse that sparks away in all directions and as far as ever you can see, illuminating countless marvels to make an imagination leap and dance and sing.

The hard part isn’t doing it… it’s breaking free from the grip of what has been, to prise loose the grip of reassurance in the caverns of one’s own personal consciousness. The consolation of affirmation is the flesh-eating, vitality-sapping minotaur at the heart of the personal labyrinth… it can be slain. We can, like Theseus, step into the light and found a new Athens.

We can be free.

File:Theseus Slaying Minotaur by Barye.jpg
THESEUS slaying the Minotaur
— a bronze sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye (1843)
(Baltimore Museum of Art)

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